His nation celebrated George H.W. Bush this week as a statesman, a veteran, a loving and committed family man who was a totem of respect, humility and mildness. But something else seeped into all the praise as Americans gathered Wednesday to send him on his way.
Bush was also remembered as an emissary from, to use his own idiom, a kinder, gentler America of seemingly clearer challenges — which were, in reality, as complicated as the fragmentary problems we face today.
In an era where Donald Trump volleys insults at will from the White House directly to an audience of tens of millions, could it be that a portion of this week’s warmth about Bush 41 is fueled in part by a hunger for a time when American politics, and American life, seemed to make just a bit more sense?
When Bush took office in early 1989, the country was just eight years out from Walter Cronkite’s avuncular, reassuring “That’s the way it is” — even when it wasn’t. During his single term, “reality TV” still meant Bob Saget rolling a few embarrassing camcorder tapes on “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” And, hard as it may seem to believe, a phone was still used pretty much to call people up and talk to them.
More saliently, George H.W. Bush was the final president to preside over — and help shepherd to an end — the more outwardly coherent narrative of American geopolitics that had prevailed since the end of World War II.
The US had a distinct, discrete adversary — communism, as embodied in the Soviet Union, whose undoing took place on Bush’s watch. That adversary had an army and an arsenal, but its main thrust was not the shadowy, asymmetrical warfare that the al-Qaidas and Islamic States of the world now use.
The reality, of course, was infinitely more intricate. For example, it’s hard to dispute that American policy contributed, however inadvertently, to the rise of that asymmetrical warfare we so fear today.
Yet even if things were more complex than they seemed, the perception of the world under George H.W. Bush was this: You still knew who your friends were, and you still knew who your enemies were. No more.
Within a couple years of Bush leaving office, the great online revolution was off and running, hurtling toward the era of social media, micropublishing and “fake news.” Communities fragmented. Institutions faded. Echo chambers rose. The promise of a golden age of human interaction — again, perhaps a promise more than it ever was a reality — melted into a more tempered notion of the internet as a city with gleaming parks, sure, but with dank and dark alleys as well.
It all had a decidedly anti-Cronkite effect: Suddenly we had no idea what, exactly, was the way it was — and what way it was supposed to be.
We remain in that confused crouch today, able to publish globally from the palms of our hands, competing with each other to have the loudest and most persuasive narrative of them all.
And that leads us to the final comparison: George H.W. Bush and Donald J. Trump, starkly different figures with different leadership styles, both unique products of equally distinctive eras.
Whether it’s something you advocate or something you just as vehemently oppose, this much is certain: The Trump administration, approaching the two-year mark, has been a wind-in-our-faces roller-coaster ride that rarely affords opportunities to pause and reflect.
Trump has brought to the presidency an irascible, seat-of-your-pants sensibility, and his social media proclivities have drawn in even the most reluctant of us.
Off the cuff has become the norm. Equilibrium is rare. Anger and aggressiveness and other behaviors previously considered unpresidential are now standard fare. And calibration of the sort that the Reagan and Bush White Houses specialized in is not only bypassed but, in some ways, scorned as stodgy and out of step with a moment-to-moment news cycle.
So it was all the more thought-provoking Wednesday to see the astonishing optics of a church whose front rows contained five living former presidents and their wives — people who, with their political machines, have been perched at the peak of the American political food chain since the Bicentennial. Carter. Clinton. Bush 43. Obama. Trump.
As the service began, and the five men of unimaginable power watched it unfold, there was virtually no drama, nothing unexpected, nothing overly volatile — as least visibly. Just a comfortable, dignified script and some mannered stories of a statesman whose time has now passed.
In America, we tend to hold onto romantic notions about the elders of the generations behind us. Why? Perhaps we think, rightly or wrongly, that they were made of stronger stuff — something more stable, something that made more sense. The American nation, which used to romanticize tomorrows, now spends far more time fetishizing yesterdays.
Is it any wonder, then, that this long goodbye to George Herbert Walker Bush — World War II veteran, distributor of homespun sayings, repository of Greatest Generation honor — might be an emotional American moment bigger than one man’s impressive legacy?
After a generation of complexity and fragmentation and polarization like the country has never seen, might we also be bidding a final farewell to a more comfortable national yesterday as well?
Ted Anthony, director of digital innovation for The Associated Press, writes frequently about American culture. Follow him on Twitter at @anthonyted
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